Persecution in the Early Church: A Gallery of the Persecuting Emperors
From A.D. 30 to A.D. 311, a period in which 54 emperors ruled the Empire, only about a dozen took the trouble to harass Christians. Furthermore, not until Decius (249–251) did any deliberately attempt an Empire-wide persecution. Until then, persecution came mainly at the instigation of local rulers, albeit with Rome’s approval. Nonetheless, a few emperors did have direct and, for Christians, unpleasant dealings with this faith. Here are the most significant of those rulers.
Perhaps the first to persecute Christians—inadvertently
Sickly, ill-mannered, and reclusive, Claudius devoted his early days to the quiet study of Etruscan and Carthaginian history, among other subjects. Understandably, he was an embarrassment to the activist imperial family. But the murder of his nephew, the emperor Gaius (who is more commonly known by his nickname “Caligula”), in 41 propelled him to the throne nonetheless. During his reign, he wisely avoided potentially costly foreign wars, extended Roman citizenship at home, and showed tolerance toward a variety of religions.
However, “since the Jews were continually making disturbances at the instigations of Chrestus, he [Claudius] expelled them from Rome.… ” So writes the Roman historian Suetonius about events in Rome around 52. “Chrestus” may have been a thorn in the side of Roman politicos anxious to be rid of him and his cohorts. Or “Chrestus” may be the way uninformed bureaucrats pronounced the name about which Jews argued: Christus. Such arguments between Jews and Christians were not unknown (e.g., in Ephesus; Acts 19). Claudius likely and inadvertently was the first emperor, then, to persecute Christians ...